Can New Balance’s ‘athletes first’ focus take on Nike and Adidas?

After introducing its first global ad campaign earlier this month and launching its football business in March, Marketing Week caught up with New Balance’s head of global marketing Hilary Keates to hear how the brand’s evolution to focus on “athletes first” has led to 15% sales growth and what it plans to do next.

To say the athletic category is competitive is an understatement. The likes of Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Under Armour have all launched campaigns this year in an effort to maintain their positions as top athletic brands, making New Balance’s ambition to take one of the top three spots a big one.

However, New Balance believes that a change in approach to become more marketing rather than product-led will see it challenge the top sports brands globally.

The strategy started with New Balance taking over as official kit supplier for Liverpool Football Club, launching its first soccer business under the New Balance brand.

While the brand initially adopted a no endorsement approach, it is now looking to top athletes to front its campaigns.

New Balance’s first global brand campaign, “Always in Beta”, starred global athletes such as Miguel Cabrera, Milos Raonic and Aaron Ramsey. It was an effort to highlight recent innovations such as its Vazee running footwear, Made for Movement apparel collection and the launch of its first football boot range.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Keates said that the brand did research that resulted in a theme of both athletes and consumers “always pushing and trying to get better”.

“We wanted to bring those two things together and be more vocal about the things we do as a brand in a consumer friendly way,” she said.

She added that athletes have always been a big part of the brand, whether or not they have featured in the brand’s campaigns.

“They’ve always been part of our product development, but bringing that side of the business to life for consumers is new for us.

“One of our brand pillars is putting athletes at the centre of everything we do and we’re bringing that to the forefront in terms of the brand. The strategy hasn’t changed, but how we communicate it has.”

Hilary Keates, global marketing head, New Balance

Competing with Nike and Adidas

The new marketing platform is aimed at competing with rival Nike which at the same time released a star-studded campaign titled “Find Your Fast” promoting its running business.

“We want to be number one in running first and foremost,” Keates explained.

The brand’s move into football, the “number one sport in the world”, is “very much in line” with this goal, she said.

“If you think about footballers they run more on average than other athletes, so this felt natural as a brand,” she said. “Running is at the core of what we do and its how those athletes can succeed.”

New Balance recently followed in the footsteps of Adidas by launching its first football boot range with a focus on a “style of play” rather than a position on the field.

The campaign video “Make Chances. Take Chances” featured four of the premier league footballers it sponsors, including Aaron Ramsey and Adnan Januzaj. It pushed the idea that its football business is “not position-specific” but “outlook-specific”.

Adidas had also said its new line of products are a move away from “previously defined player types or positions”.

However, Keates said one of the most important things to the brand when it launched “Always in Beta” was finding a “unique proposition”.

“One of our other pillars is being independent,” she said. “We don’t follow other brands. We follow our own path and chart our own course.”

A tough fight ahead

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Keates said the brand has made good progress towards its top three goal, with a growth rate of 15% over the last five years.

“We’ve been on an amazing trajectory and watched the brand grow,” she said. “Our growth rate has been pretty exceptional.”

While New Balance does not release its financial results, CEO Rob DeMartini told Bloomberg that revenues hit $3.3bn in 2014 and will be closer to $4bn in 2015.

The numbers are way behind Nike which had sales of $27.5bn, although its growth rate is slower at around 10%.

Recent brand tracking data also suggests a move in the right direction.

According to YouGov’s BrandIndex, purchase intent has risen slightly over the past six months, taking the brand from 9th to 6th on the list of 25 sports brands. Purchase consideration is also up by a statistically significant amount putting the brand in 12th spot.

However, the brand is 14th on the overall Index ranking with a score of 6.5 compared to leader Adidas on 27.4 and Nike on 26.9. It also falls behind the likes of Asics, Puma and Reebok.

Though up by three points compared to six months ago, its also ranks 23rd out of the 25 brands in terms of awareness, suggesting it has a long way to go to use its marketing to become a top three brand in the UK.

James Ramsden, executive creative director at Rufus Leonard, says New Balance has a “tough fight” ahead, but that the emergence of Under Armour shows it can be done.

“Adidas, Nike and the emerging heavyweight that is Under Armour are very, very active brands all doing innovative projects like Adidas Go integrating with Spotify for running, Nike releasing its new app Nike NTC and Under Armour moving into digital products with their $500m purchase of MyFitnessPal and Endomondo,” he said.

He added that New Balance’s most recent products are “fresher, up to date and more fashionable than how it used to feel”.

However, he said: “The reality is the big three sports super brands are way ahead when it comes to feeling ‘cool’ and New Balance has some distance to close. The health and well being revolution that’s taking place is gathering so much momentum that New Balance will have to do something really different next to be the laces that everyone wants to tie.”

Keates said that in order to drive the brand up the rankings, New Balance will focus on the sports “where we feel like we can compete”.

“We’re going to stay very focused as brand and continue to build on what we’ve started,” she said.

“We’re going to strengthen our business in the sports that we’re in and continue to build product, market it and really understand our consumers and what they need. As a marketer that’s the first place to start.”

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